Hopping on an ATV and hitting the trails can be a fun and exciting way to spend a weekend. If you’re looking for a new way to enjoy the great outdoors, riding these compact but powerful vehicles could be for you. They’re useful too – widely used for everything from snow plowing, weed spraying, winching, transporting materials, and even plowing.
As with any vehicle, it’s important to know the risks associated with ATVs, so you can take the steps required to maximise your safety. We’ve compiled five useful tips for protecting yourself and those around you when you try out this hobby.
What is An ATV?
As you’re probably aware, ATV is an acronym for ‘All Terrain Vehicle’. As the name suggests, they’re designed for tackling off-road surfaces. ATVs are equipped with four low-pressure, non-pneumatic tires, specifically made for rough and uneven surfaces. They’re operated by a driver who straddles the vehicle in much the same way you would ride a motorcycle, and controlled by handlebars rather than a steering wheel.
ATVs are typically powered by internal combustion engines – like a car or motorcycle – but electric models are being pioneered all the time. With any luck, this option will reach the general public in the coming years.
There are two main types of ATV:
- Type One – These ATVs are intended for one rider only, and shouldn’t be used to carry passengers.
- Type Two – Type two ATVs are equipped with a second seat, accommodating one driver and one passenger. As you’ve probably guessed, type two ATVs tend to be larger.
Because riding ATVs is such a popular family activity, manufacturers have developed different designs to accommodate drivers of different ages and stature. For instance, Youth ATVs are designed with smaller limbs in mind, and are less powerful than models designed for adults. Choosing the correct ATV for your size is vital, as we’ll discuss later on.
Back in 1961, the ATV’s first predecessor was invented in Toronta, Canada. The six-wheeled Jiger is widely regarded as the world’s first ‘go anywhere’ vehicle, able to tackle land and water alike. It weighed 200 pounds, and was powered by a 5.5 horsepower engine. The Jiger entered mass production in 1965, but its progress was soon halted by the company’s financial problems just three years later.
The next notable development came in 1967, when American Honda commissioned one of their employees, Osamu Takeuchi, to diversify the company’s offerings with a new product. Of Takeuchi’s numerous designs, Honda were most impressed with a three-wheeled concept designed to tackle snowy or muddy conditions. The vehicle used low pressure, high-flotation balloon tires, much like those installed on a contemporary amphibious vehicle, the Amphi-Cat.
Ever since Takeuchi’s designs, the history of the ATV has been intimately linked to the history of Honda. In 1970, Honda’s three-wheeled ATV finally reached America, and experienced great popularity. Marketed as the ultimate recreational vehicle, it was featured in both Diamonds are Forever and Magnum P.I.
With the gas crunch of the 1970s, however, much of this recreational use evaporated, as customers put them to more practical purposes in agriculture. ATVs consumed a lot less fuel than conventional tractors, and could carry out many of the same tasks. With these new found uses, demand soared, and finally reached its peak in the 1980s.
It wasn’t until 1982 that the four-wheeled design we know today entered the scene. Suzuki’s QuadRunner 125 was somewhat more sophisticated than its predecessors, equipped with an odometer, five speeds and even reversing capabilities. Honda quickly followed suit, releasing their own four-wheeled concept in 1984: the FourTrax 250R. 1984 turned out to be Honda’s best year for ATV sales, accounting for a staggering 69 percent of all ATV sales in the US that year.
Honda’s ATV innovations continued at a pace: 1986 heralded the first ever four wheel drive ATV, and Honda have been the market leader ever since.
What are the Risks?
ATVs offer a fun ride and have versatile uses, but operating them isn’t without its risks. In fact, between 300 and 400 ATV-related deaths occur on US roads every year. In 2003 alone, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that ATVs were responsible for around 125,500 injuries.
Sadly, many of these injuries – around a third – were sustained by children under 16. It’s also worth noting that over three quarters of injuries were sustained by men and boys.
We don’t include these statistics to put you off, but to make you aware of just how common ATV-related injuries are. The vast majority of these injuries are the result of rider error, rather vehicle malfunction, so we can’t emphasise strongly enough the importance of actively considering safety every time you ride.
With this in mind, it’s time to move on to our top five tips for staying safe while driving an ATV.
Tip One: Wear Protective Gear
It’s no exaggeration to say that the right protective gear could save your life: wearing a ATV helmet alone reduces the risk of fatality in ATV accidents by 42 percent. Helmets also reduce the risk of sustaining a non-fatal head injury by 64 percent.
To keep yourself protected in the event of an accident, the ATV Safety Institute recommends wearing the following gear:
As mentioned above, helmets significantly reduce the risk of injury or death while riding an ATV. Be sure to select a helmet that carries the stamp of approval from the Department of Transportation (DOT) or Snell Memorial Foundation. Full-face helmets provide additional protection, making them the safest option for ATV drivers. Always make sure your helmet is fastened securely during use.
- Eye Protection
If you can’t see clearly, you can’t ride safely; that’s why investing in a good quality pair of goggles is vital for safe ATV operation. Look out for a pair of goggles made from hard-coated polycarbonate, with ventilation to prevent fogging and a secure fastening system. You might find our goggle buying guide useful when it comes to selecting an appropriate pair. Without goggles, you run the risk of branches and flying debris damaging your eyes – potentially impairing your vision or even blinding you.
- Appropriate Clothing
When operating an ATV, help prevent damage to your skin in the event of an accident by wearing the following:
- Off-highway style gloves, to prevent chafing and protect your knuckles
- Strong, over-the-ankle boots with low heels
- A long-sleeved shirt of jersey
- Long pants, or off-highway pants
You can supplement this clothing with knee pads, a chest protector, and shoulder protectors for extra security.
Tip Two: Avoid Paved Surfaces
ATVs are great for off-roading, but they just aren’t designed for highways and other paved surfaces. In fact, it’s illegal to drive ATVs on public roads in most states – and for good reason. Data from the Consumer Federation of America revealed that between 1998 and 2006, over 60 percent of all ATV-related fatalities in the US occurred on paved roads.
ATVs are a hazard on public roads for a number of reasons. Firstly, ATV tires have a relatively narrow track, and low pressure. This makes them ideal for negotiating the rough, shifting surfaces of off-road driving, but also means they don’t offer much grip or manoeuvrability on the highway. ATVs also tend to have quite a high centre of gravity, which allows the body to easily pass over obstacles off the road, but on the road makes for poor stability and the potential to tip over.
ATVs are also unsuitable for public roads because they don’t meet the lighting regulations required for a vehicle to be road-legal. Many have no lights at all, and most lack turning signals, brake lights, and reversing lights. This, along with their relatively small size, results in poor visibility. Other road users may not be able to see someone riding an ATV, which can result in collisions.
Tip Three: Inspect your ATV thoroughly
This tip isn’t specific to ATVs – it’s a good idea to visually check any vehicle you’re about to drive, especially if it’s been a while since you last drove it.
By regularly checking over your ATV, you can minimise the risk of malfunction. ATV.com recommend performing these checks before you hop on:
- Gas – if the gas has been sitting in the tank for a long time, it’s a good idea to drain and refill before you ride the ATV. Old gas can become viscous and cause the engine to run poorly, or even become damaged.
- Tires – check your tires for signs of wear and tear before every ride. Look out for tread wear, bulges, and punctures, and check the pressure if you have a tire pressure gauge available. You can check the ideal pressure for the tires by seeking guidance from the manufacturer.
- Brakes – check your brakes for pad wear by getting to eye-level with the calipers – it should be at least ⅛ inch thick to function properly. It’s also a good idea to check the brake fluid levels, and top up if required. If the vehicle has been sitting unused for a while, drain the fluid and replace it entirely.
- Oil – ATV engines depend on engine oil for smooth operation, so it’s important to check your oil levels regularly, and keep your eyes open for any leaks.
- Steering – be sure to look over the tie rods that connect the handlebars to the tires. If one snaps while you’re driving, you’ll end up steering with just one tire
- Chain – be sure that the chain is properly oiled, and not stretched out, before you drive your ATV.
- Battery – if the ATV has an electric starter, then it has a battery, which could go flat if kept in storage. Investing in a charger is a good idea if you own an ATV.
- Grips – this check might sound trivial, but handlebar grips are vital for controlling your ATV. If they’re damaged, you can buy a replacement set for as little as $10.
Tip Four: Take a Safety Course
If you’re going to be using ATVs regularly, or plan on buying one for yourself, taking a safety course is essential. You’ll be given comprehensive advice and a safe place to practise, alongside professionals who know what they’re talking about.
If you choose to take a course locally, you can also expect it to be tailored to your area. It’s a great way to learn about risks that are more specific to you, and provides ample opportunity to raise any questions you have about your own ATV safety practices.
Tip Five: Use the correct Size ATV
In 2001, 97 percent of ATV accidents involving children under 16 were the result of these children driving ATVs that were too large for them. In other words, you can substantially reduce the risk of kids getting hurt on ATVs just by making sure they’re riding a vehicle recommended for them.
Youth ATVs tend to be smaller, and less powerful. This allows younger riders to sit comfortably, and reach all the controls. The smaller engines in these vehicles also prevent riders travelling at high speeds. If a child in your care is going to ride an ATV, double check that it’s designed for them, not adults.
Bringing it all together
Overall, driving ATVs safely is a simple matter of preparation – getting the right gear, taking the right class, and performing the right checks.
To recap, the five most important ways to keep yourself and others safe while driving ATVs are:
- Wearing the correct protective gear – helmet, goggles, gloves, boots, and protective clothing
- Playing to your vehicle’s strengths by avoiding paved surfaces
- Inspecting the ATV you are about to drive thoroughly
- Taking a safety course
- Ensuring that children ride an appropriately sized ATV
For your own peace of mind, we’d also advise you to insure your ATV if you have your own. This can cover the cost of accidental damage, and cost of medical treatment should something go wrong. Making this investment is a good reminder that, however fun, ATVs are not toys, and should be treated with the same respect as other vehicles.